Democratic House candidate Dan McCready talks to volunteers at his campaign office in Waxhaw, N.C., outside Charlotte, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019.
Alan Fram/AP Photo

Trump is far happier than he should be about North Carolina results

Updated

There were two congressional special elections in North Carolina yesterday, and on the surface, the results were exactly in line with Republicans’ wishes: the GOP candidates won both, including the competitive contest election watchers were keeping a close eye on.

Republican Dan Bishop narrowly defeated Democrat Dan McCready in a special election on Tuesday in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. […]

Democrats said Trump’s unpopularity is the only reason the GOP-leaning district was competitive in the first place and that Republicans needed to pull out all the stops to win it. And, looking ahead to next year, Democrats say there are 34 Republican-held congressional districts that are more competitive than this one.

With just about all the votes counted, it looks like Bishop won by about 2 percent. (In the 3rd congressional district, Greg Murphy cruised to an even easier 24-point win, but no one seriously expected that race to be close, and Democrats made little effort to compete in the contest.)

Donald Trump, desperate for some good news, spent much of last night and this morning on a Twitter victory lap, crediting his greatness, making up polls, and whining about news organizations.

Whether the president understands this or not, his joy is badly out of step with the results.

North Carolina’s 9th congressional district isn’t exactly a swing district. In 2012, Mitt Romney won it by 12 points. Four years later, Trump also won it by 12 points. Local voters haven’t elected a Democrat to Congress in several decades.

It’s against this backdrop that Republicans scrambled to compete in North Carolina’s 9th, with the National Republican Congressional Committee and other outside groups investing nearly $7 million in just this one special-election contest, hoping to push an elected state lawmaker over the top in a race against a Democrat who’s never won an election. Bishop also benefited from personal visits to the district from his party’s president and vice president.

Or put another way, this should’ve been an easy one for the GOP. The fact that it wasn’t should put the party in an anxious mood, not a celebratory one.

As we’ve discussed before, elections tend to be zero-sum affairs. Candidates vie for a seat, the winner earns the opportunity to serve, and the loser gets nothing. One seldom gets a “nice job keeping it close” trophy.

That said, as we were reminded last night, context is everything. There were several races along these lines in 2017 and 2018 – “red” districts featuring first-time Democratic candidates who narrowly lost – right up until the midterm elections in which voters handed Democrats the U.S. House majority and Republicans lost the most number of seats since the Watergate era.

Trump’s online reactions suggest he’s confused about how best to interpret the results. In the president’s mind, when his party struggles to eke out a narrow victory in a district that should’ve been a layup, it’s proof that he’s on the right track and there’s no need for him to change direction. After all, the theory goes, a win is a win.

It doesn’t appear to occur to Trump that there’s a reason Democrats are smiling this morning, despite having lost.